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In an unreliable packet network setting, we study the performance gains of optimal transmission strategies in the presence and absence of coding capability at the transmitter, where performance is measured in delay and throughput. Although our results apply to a large class of coding strategies including maximum-distance separable (MDS) and Digital Fountain codes, we use random network codes in our discussions because these codes have a greater applicability for complex network topologies. To that end, after introducing a key setting in which performance analysis and comparison can be carried out, we provide closed-form as well as asymptotic expressions for the delay performance with and without network coding. We show that the network coding capability can lead to arbitrarily better delay performance as the system parameters scale when compared to traditional transmission strategies without coding. We further develop a joint scheduling and random-access scheme to extend our results to general wireless network topologies.